Food Safety News
Dan Brown, a Maine dairy farmer from an area called Blue Hill, has 21 days to file an appeal of court cases and fines for illegally selling raw milk from his roadside farm stand that was found to be without either labels or licenses.
At a penalty hearing, Justice Anne Murray said Brown failed to persuade her to rescind her May 2nd decision calling for penalties and court fines totaling $1,138. Brown’s attorney, Sandra Hylander Collier, argued that raw milk is safe with or without a license.
The judge ruled Brown must have a license, and the dairy farmer said the cost of compliance including all state requirements along with facilities and infrastructure costs would exceed $20,000.
Murray took her own motion ordering Brown to comply under advisement, meaning she can take as much time as she likes before taking final action on what long range actions he must take.
Maine’s Legislature has voted to deregulate small-scale production to raw milk, but Gov. Paul LePage has not yet acted on the measure. It would allow dairy farmers to sell up to 20 gallons of raw milk per day so long as it was labeled and tested.
The new Maine law is likely why the judge withheld her ruling. If the Governor signs the law, her action would be meaningless.
The appeal of Brown’s fine will go to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Brown contends Maine’s Department of Agriculture gave him permission to sell raw milk at his roadside stand so long as sales were not for wholesale purposes or go off his property.
Two key food and agriculture measures inched forward on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. A Senate appropriations subcommittee approved a bill that would increase funding at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by $53 million for the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the House kicked off debate on its version of the farm bill.
The $20.93 billion appropriations bill, which also covers the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would fund several food and agriculture programs for fiscal year 2014. The legislation would give FDA $2.5 billion in discretionary spending, which the committee noted is $96 million over fiscal year 2013. More than half of that is slated to help the agency roll out and enforce FSMA.
Steve Grossman, executive director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, a group of industry and consumer groups that lobby for more funding for the agency, lauded the panel for increasing resources at the agency during a tough budgetary time.
“The Alliance is very pleased by the Senate subcommittee mark, which takes FDA above its FY 12 base funding and near to the FY 13 levels before the rescission and the sequester were applied,” said Grossman. “We will continue to work for the largest possible appropriation for the agency, whose responsibilities keep growing every year. We appreciate the recognition that Chairman Pryor and Ranking Member Blunt have given to this reality.”
Under the plan, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would receive just over $1 billion, $7 million below FY 2013. The bill includes full funding for all federal, state and international inspection services, according to a breakdown released by the appropriations committee. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service would get $1.1 billion, which represents a $51 billion boost over FY 13.
The measure was approved during a quick subcommittee meeting Tuesday morning and will next be considered by the full appropriations committee.
“I’m proud of the bill we’re reporting today,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), chair of the subcommittee at the hearing. “We have worked hard to invest these tax dollars into programs that provide direct benefits to our farmers and rural communities and to programs that provide health and safety benefits to all of us.”
“Overall some difficult decisions had to be made, but overall I think this is a well balanced bill that allocates funds where they are needed most,” he added.
On Tuesday afternoon, the House also began its consideration of its version of the farm bill, just two weeks after the Senate approved its version. While the biggest point of debate is expected to be over the size of the House bill’s cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, it’s also very likely that FSMA and other food safety issues will come up during the debate.
During some opening floor statements, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), who represents the Yakima Valley, an extremely productive specialty crop area, expressed concerns about FSMA’s draft produce safety regulations. Hastings said he was particularly concerned about how the regulations would impact tree fruit growers.
“I think we can all agree that lettuce and apples are grown in completely different ways,” he said, noting that the former is grown on the ground and the latter in trees. Hastings urged FDA to tailor the regulations to match the risk and the way different crops are grown. House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) said on the floor that he agreed with Hastings, hinting that FDA may have gone too far “in its zeal to achieve marginal food safety gains.”
Nearly 230 amendments have been filed. Among them, an amendment by Rep. Tony Carenas (D-CA) that would expand food safety education initiatives to include training farm workers on how to identify sources of food contamination and how to decrease contamination events and an amendment by Dan Benishek (R-MI) that would requires “a scientific and economic analysis” of FSMA prior to final regulations being enforced.
The House is expected to resume consideration of the farm bill and dive into amendments on Wednesday. See Food Safety News in the coming days for more on the discussion. A full round up of amendments that have been filed can be found on the House Rules Committee website here.
Poorer nutrition and less access to healthcare leads to a greater likelihood of bacterial and viral infections — including foodborne illness — among low-income children, according to a report published Tuesday by the Consumer Federation of America.
More than 2 out of every 5 children in the U.S. (44 percent) live in a low-income household, the report said, and studies show that economic status is a greater predictor of risk than race or ethnicity when it comes to unintentional injuries.
Children under the age of 15 years account for approximately half of all the reported foodborne illnesses in the U.S., with children under 5 years old being especially vulnerable to foodborne pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella.
One study from Detroit cited in the report found that for every additional 10 percent of residents below the poverty line, nearby fast-food and carry-out restaurants had an increase of 0.6 critical health violations during health inspections.
“Given the high incidence of foodborne illness among children, it is especially important to learn more about the influence of factors on the safety of foods consumed by low-income children,” said Chris Waldrop, Director of CFA’s Food Policy Institute in a press statement. “Collecting more and better data related to family income would greatly improve our understanding of these safety issues.”
The New York Times editorial board on Monday weighed in on a U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General report on pig slaughter, a month after the report was issued.
“In the United States, there are some 8,600 federal meat inspectors working in 6,300 packing and processing plants. Their task is daunting: visual and manual inspection of every carcass in plants that process thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands, of animals a day,” read the editorial. “How good a job does the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service really do? A new report from the U.S.D.A.’s inspector general is not encouraging.”
See Food Safety News’ coverage of the report here.
The editorial notes the IG report finds “several fundamental flaws, the most serious of which is that serial violators of health standards are allowed to keep operating.”
Between 2008 and 2011, according to the IG report, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors noted nearly 45,000 violations, including fecal contamination and other food safety issues, but those inspectors only suspended operations 28 times.
“The inspectors are not only overworked, but, in many cases, undertrained,” according to the Times. “Even in the presence of government investigators, some inspectors failed to condemn contaminated meat. Nor were the inspectors vigilant enough when it came to flagging violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which specifies a minimum standard for the treatment of animals being led to slaughter.”
“The good news is that the Agriculture Department is inspecting its inspection system,” the paper concluded. “The bad news is that the inspector general’s office merely urges inspectors to conform more fully to existing laws and directives, when what is needed is more and better-trained inspectors.”
The number of E. coli cases tied to an outbreak at Los Burritos Mexicanos in Lombard, Ill., has risen to 9 confirmed and another 8 probable, according to the DuPage County Health Department.
As Food Safety News reported yesterday, the restaurant was closed on Friday for an E. coli investigation. The restaurant remained closed through Tuesday.
Out of the 9 confirmed illnesses, 6 people were hospitalized, though all have since been discharged.
Health officials are investigating the possible cause of the outbreak. The restaurant managers said no employees have been sick and there have been no problems reported at the restaurant chain’s other two locations in Villa Park and St. Charles, which use the same food distributors.
Brian Brothers of Edmonds, WA says he ate the frozen berry blend, “Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Mix,” multiple times between January and April of 2013 before falling ill in mid-May with symptoms of fatigue and darker urine. On May 22 he was admitted to the hospital with a fever, nausea and jaundice — all symptoms of a hepatitis A infection.
While he was hospitalized, doctors told Mr. Brothers he might need a liver transplant, a procedure that eventually did not prove necessary, according to his attorneys.
Mr. Brothers is being represented by Marler Clark, the law firm that underwrites Food Safety News.
His case was filed in Snohomish County Superior Court Tuesday.
“All of the people I represent in this outbreak have been fatigued for weeks,” said attorney Bill Marler, who is also publisher of Food Safety News. “Brian Brothers has been suffering the effects of his hepatitis A infection for a month now and likely won’t get back to his normal self for several more weeks.”
Mr. Brothers says that during the worst phase of his illness, he experienced headache, fever, acute stomach aches, nausea, extreme fatigue and cloudy judgement, and that he continues to feel fatigued.
The hepatitis A outbreak linked to Townsend Farms’ frozen berry mix is known to have sickened 118 people in 8 states to date, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Marler Clark has now filed 15 cases on behalf of alleged victims of the outbreak, including 9 class action suits and 6 representing individuals.
This recall comes on the heels of another dry pet food recall, also for Salmonella, initiated by the company in March of this year and expanded in April.
California-based Natura announced the recall, which includes all California Natural, EVO, Healthwise, Mother Nature and Karma brand dry pet food, Tuesday. The company said its decision was in response to one positive result of a Salmonella test conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on a sample of product manufactured April 3. Given this finding, the company decided to recall all products manufactured in the same facility as the product that tested positive.
The dry pet foods subject to this recall bear expiration dates prior to June 10, 2014. They include:BRAND LOT CODE/UPC/SIZES; EXPIRATION Innova Dry dog and cat food and biscuits/bars/treats All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014 EVO dry dog, cat and ferret food and biscuits/bars/treats All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014 California Natural dry dog and cat foods and biscuits/bars/treats All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014 Healthwise dry dog and cat foods All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014 Karma dry dog foods All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014 Mother Nature biscuits/bars/treats All Lot Codes, All UPC’s, All package sizes All expiration dates prior to 6-10-2014
The affected pet foods were sold in bags at veterinary clinics, specialty pet retailers and online in the U.S. and Canada.
“We are truly sorry,” said the company in a letter to customers Tuesday. “We know this news disappoints you; we are disappointed too. Natura will always focus on high-quality ingredients, product safety and innovation in pet nutrition. We remain committed to making products you can trust.”
No illnesses have been linked to the food to date, according to Natura. However, those whose pets have consumed the above products should keep an eye out for symptoms of Salmonella infection in both people in the household and their pets.
In humans, symptoms of Salmonella infection include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever.
In pets, symptoms of Salmonella infection can include lethargy, diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Some may only experience a decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain. Pets may also be carrying the bacteria but not display symptoms. If your pet has consumed the recalled product, FDA advises that you contact your veterinarian.
The Westchester County Health Department confirmed Monday that Campylobacter was the source of the many illnesses that affected festival goers in the days following the June 6 Burger and Beer Bash.
Health officials say the threat of the outbreak is now over.
“Anyone who has not already become sick following this event should no longer be at risk,” said Health Commissioner Sherlita Amler, MD. “Anyone who continues to have symptoms should contact his or her physician and should not go to work or school until symptoms resolve.”
Patients report eating food from several of the 30 vendors at the festival, making it difficult for health authorities to determine the source of the bacteria, said WCHD in a press release. However, the health department plans to revisit good food safety practices with all the vendors.
“As part of our response, the health department will send sanitarians to each of the food service establishments who participated in the festival to provide a refresher to restaurant staff about food safety, with special emphasis on safe off-site practices,” Amler said. “Sanitarians will also conduct a detailed food preparation review by observing as restaurant staffers prepare the foods they served at the June 6 event.”
This count comes as the lastest in an almost daily rise in the number of illnesses, which yesterday was at 106. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 of the victims have been hospitalized as a result of their infections.
Illness onset dates range from March 16 through June 8, 2013.
Those sickened range in age from 2 to 87 years of age. A majority (59 percent) of the victims are women.
Of the 112 patients interviewed, 80 (71 percent) report eating “Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend,” a mix of frozen berries and pomegranate seeds sold at Costco stores, prior to fallin ill. The product was also sold at Harris Teeter stores under the Harris Teeter brand, but no patients have reported eating this product to date.
Costco notified its members of the problem via its electronic notification system on May 30 after being notified of the problem. Approximately 240,000 customers had purchased the berries since late February, when the product is thought to have become potentially contaminated.
The Costco product was distributed in 12 states, including Arizona, Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington, but no cases from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon or Montana have been reported.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has begun an investigation into the processing facilities of Townsend Farms, located in Fairview, OR.
Consumers who ate the Townsend frozen berry product within the past two weeks should see a healthcare provider or contact their local health department in order to receive the hepatitis A vaccine. Those who ate the affected product more than 14 days ago will not benefit from the protection of the shot, but should keep an eye out for symptoms of hepatitis A infection, which include nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, pain in the upper right abdomen, diarrhea and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes.
People experiencing symptoms should contact their healthcare provider or their local health department.
Best-selling food author Marion Nestle paid a quick visit to Food Safety News during a stop in Seattle to discuss food politics, the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), and food safety.
Seattle readers may want to know that Nestle will be giving a talk and Q&A tonight (June 18) at Queen Anne United Methodist Church as part of their “Food, Faith, and Planet” series of talks. Tickets are $10.
Watch our Q&A below:
The students, who reside in the Meishan City area of Sichuan province, fell ill at the end of last week with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, fatigue and dizziness. Chinese health authorities eventually determined that their illnesses were caused by Salmonella.
Over two-thirds of those sickened remained hospitalized as of Sunday, reported CNTV.
More than 30 students failed to take their school entrance exams, according to CNTV.
Investigations suggest that a stainless steel cooking pot may have been the vehicle that transmitted the bacteria, according to the Global Times.
This incident follows a similar one of food poisoning in Sichuan province in April of this year when 292 students at Yingjie Township Central Elementary School in the city of Ziyang fell ill with diarrhea, vomiting and fever linked to food poisoning.
Rep. Slaughter also urged the president, as she has before, to consider stronger limits on antibiotics allowed to be used in animal agriculture.
In a press release, Slaughter’s office noted that Britain’s Science Minister David Willetts recently raised questions about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals and its contribution to the worldwide antibiotic resistance crisis.
The only microbiologist in Congress, Slaughter has been pushing her bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would prohibit the routine use of eight classes of antibiotics that are important for human health in order to preserve the effectiveness of the drugs.
“This is an issue of grave concern to me given my background in microbiology and public health, and it ought to be of concern to all of us who bear the responsibility for protecting the public,” wrote Slaughter in a letter sent last week. “We are frittering away one of the greatest medical advancements of all time – the development of the antibiotic – by allowing its overuse on farms with otherwise healthy animals.”
“As our friends and trading partners move forward with more aggressive countermeasures to this growing public health crisis, I fear that America will find itself at a disadvantage that will impact not only our public health and the lives of our people, but also our ability to trade our products,” she added. “I urge you to listen to your colleagues this week as this matter is discussed. I look forward to an open dialogue with you about the conversations and the next steps.”
See the full letter here.
My life changed forever in June 1996, when my two little sisters were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 infections after eating “triple-washed, ready-to-eat” mesclun lettuce. At first, they suffered horrendous cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. While Chelsea soon recovered, Haylee — who was just three years old at the time — fell critically ill with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious kidney disorder that can result from E. coli infection.
Haylee spent three-and-a-half-months fighting for her life. She suffered retinal hemorrhages, pneumonia and rectal prolapse. A tennis-ball-sized brain hemorrhage necessitated emergency surgery, which caused blindness for weeks and left her with a lifelong visual deficiency. Haylee still has reduced kidney function, diabetes and a learning disability.
I was shocked to learn that the leafy greens implicated in my sisters’ illnesses had been grown at a farm not registered with the state and processed with unchlorinated water in an exposed stainless steel tub located less than 100 feet away from a cattle ranch. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that the well that supplied the wash water was 20 feet from a cattle pen, that the filter had been disconnected and that no bacterial testing was performed.
Activism and foodborne illness education became key to my recovery from this trauma. Today, I work for Marler Clark, the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of foodborne illness, and the underwriter of Food Safety News.
This past March I spoke at an FDA hearing in Portland, Oregon, about the importance of fully implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act. As luck would have it, after speaking, I shared a van ride back to Portland International Airport with Scott Horsfall, CEO of the California Leafy Green Products Handlers Marketing Agreement (LGMA).
Mr. Horsfall applauded my support of the FSMA and my testimonial. He also told me about the LGMA and its support of the Food Safety Modernization Act. I was excited to hear about the mission of the organization and its commitment to raising the bar for food safety.
Scott explained he was developing a tour for victims of foodborne illness and their families to see the changes that have been made in California leafy greens production, and then he invited me to participate. I agreed to be included and was curious about what I would find visiting these farms and seeing the faces behind these products.
In the days before the tour I was not sure what I expected to see. My assumptions were that produce growers and handlers were more concerned with the business’ bottom line and that extra food safety standards were an expensive inconvenience. I worried that this tour was a marketing ploy and that the farmers would be insensitive to our stories.
I was very wrong.
The tour group consisted of victims of foodborne illness and their families along with the staff from STOP Foodborne Illness, a non-profit organization that works with foodborne illness victims. The group was there primarily to be shown the inner workings of the industry and to get a real feel for the role food safety plays in leafy green farming. Because of my personal connection with E. coli poisoning from California-grown lettuce, I was there to see the changes that had been made since my sisters were sick and to share their story. The tour was in fact a personal and educational endeavor for me. I needed reassurance that threats of pathogens in our produce were understood and, most importantly, being addressed.
Our tour started at Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVE), a member of the LGMA. Dan Sutton, the general manager of POVE, was the first handler I met and really had the most impact on me. He talked to the group about the LGMA and how seriously its members take food safety. He was so touched by our stories that he became overcome with emotion. Sutton expressed his gratitude for our willingness to share our experiences and to advocate for safe food. He explained that distributing safe food was, in his words, “a moral obligation.” I was touched by how genuine and compassionate this man was. He seemed to understand the importance of food safety and the impact foodborne illness has on families.
We proceeded to Ikeda Brothers Farms (grower for POVE) in Oceano, and got to meet the Ikeda family and see their growing operation. Tom Ikeda, who operates the business, spoke candidly about the fact that he feeds his family and friends his produce, so the safety of the food is crucial and ultimately personal. Getting to put faces to this idea I had in my head of farmers helped me relate to them as individuals rather than a giant faceless corporation. It was truly humbling to see the fields and hear about the process.
We then visited Talley Farms, a member of the LGMA in Arroyo Grande, California. The company is operated by the third generation of the Talley family. The main message from Ryan Talley was that the company holds a very high standard for food safety and that although the LGMA deals exclusively with leafy green produce, Talley upholds the LGMA’s high standard for all their produce. I was surprised to hear that food safety procedures and training translates to about 15 percent of their annual budget.
That evening our group had dinner with local farming families and I got some time to speak one-on-one with many of them. The general consensus among the LGMA members and growers was that they were happy we could join them and that the initial fears of our visit were diminished (that victims and their families would show up with feelings of vengeance).
Day two started with visiting Rancho Guadalupe in Santa Maria, California, where I got to see an iceberg lettuce harvest as well as an audit demonstration. Before entering the field, strict policies were explained in which we had to do things like remove our jewelry and wear hairnets — all in the name of food safety. The speed, skill and rhythm of the harvesting crew were astounding. I felt a lot more respect for the hard work of the crew and their skills after getting an up close view of the process. Two government auditors talked with our group and explained the things they looked for when visiting a farm, the questions that are asked and how detailed the process really is – one farm audit can last between 6 to 10 hours.
For the last leg of the tour, our group went back indoors, where we got to see the inner workings of a processing facility. Here we would see how bagged salads such as triple-washed mixes (much like what my sisters ate) were processed and put together for consumers. Before entering the Gold Coast Packing facility, we were given stringent guidelines which included no phones or cameras. I felt anxious about seeing how the produce was handled. I was ushered into a clearly new and sterile building in which I was able to observe the entirety of the processing from when the produce enters the facility up to how it’s packaged to be distributed.
The whole operation of making the products “ready-to-eat” was explained, as well as the company’s microbiological testing program. I had a multitude of questions about the washing process, the hygiene factors and everything in between. I was not easy on the food safety and quality assurance staff and they were more than happy to oblige. I left the processing facility feeling more at ease with some “ready-to-eat” mixes knowing the high standards that went into the process (at least at Gold Coast Packing). Given my family’s experiences, however, I still don’t think I will be running out to eat them any time soon.
The tour wrapped up with a large roundtable discussion in which we met more leafy green growers, shippers, food safety staff, scientists and auditors. The stories the group members shared were incredibly moving, both to me and clearly to the food professionals, as many of them told me so afterward.
I gained a lot of insight on the tour and started to feel more empowered about my fight for food safety. Perhaps I wasn’t fighting this uphill battle alone. The industry that became the villain in my eyes after Haylee fell ill may not be as bad as I once thought. I was inspired by the hard work and dedication to raise the bar for food safety in the industry. Roxanne, a government auditor I met, told me she would think of Haylee when she was out in the fields. I was touched.
The name of the Lombard, IL restaurant closed Friday by the DuPage County Health Department did not remain a secret for even the weekend.
The DuPage County Health Department has confirmed Los Burritos Mexicanos was shut down because of its possible association with an investigation into an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The restaurant at 1015 E St. Charles Road was closed at 5 p.m.. Friday.
Jason Gerwig, spokesman for the health department, said the total number of cases involved in the outbreak was about ten. Eight people were treated at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove. Four were admitted to the hospital for further care. Four others did not require hospital admission.
The restaurant was closed as a precaution, according to officials.
The Hepatitis A outbreak continues in eight western states with the case count as of June 14 rising to 106. The illnesses are blamed on an organic blend of frozen berries and pomegranate seeds from multiple countries. Produced by Oregon-based Townsend Farms and sold at Costco and Harris Teeter stores, the frozen berry blend has caused Hepatitis A cases in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington.
In an update today on its investigation, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta profiled the cases based on available epidemiologic data from 94 of the 106 cases under investigation:
- 57 (61 percent) ill people are women
- Ages range from 2 – 87 years
- Illness onset dates range from 3/16/2013 – 6/8/2013
- 47 (50 percent) ill people have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported
- 76 of 94 (81 percent) ill people interviewed reported eating “Townsend Farms Organic Anti-Oxidant Blend” frozen berry and pomegranate mix
All those who reported eating this product purchased it from Costco Wholesale stores. No cases have been identified that bought the product at Harris Teeter at this time.
Investigation by CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and state and local health departments is ongoing. Costco notified its members who purchased this product since late February 2013, and has removed the “Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend” frozen berry and pomegranate mix from its shelves.
FDA, according to the update, has also begun an inspection of the processing facilities of Townsend Farms located in Fairview, Oregon.
Two new lawsuits were filed against Townsend Farms late last week. The lawsuits were brought by Seattle-based Marler Clark, the law firm that underwrites Food Safety News.
The Pew Charitable Trusts commended Congressman Tom Latham (R-IA) last week for his leadership in securing approximately $27 million in additional food safety funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the appropriations bill that is moving through the House.
As Food Safety News reported Friday, the food safety funding boost was approved as part of a $19.5 billion agricultural appropriations bill that cleared the full House Appropriations Committee Thursday.
“We’re delighted that Rep. Latham, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, continues to make food safety a clear priority. He understands that food safety programs are crucial to consumers and to the hardworking farm families who grow our crops,” said Erik Olson, senior director of Pew’s food programs. “Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, such as the salmonella in cantaloupe that sickened 15 Iowans last year, can shake consumer confidence and cost agricultural producers millions. This new funding would help strengthen prevention efforts and protect consumers and producers alike.”
In polling they conducted last year, Pew found that 73 percent of Iowans favored an increase in funding for FDA food safety programs for 2013, indicating that support was bipartisan.
Pew has also highlighted foodborne illness victims in Iowa to make the case for more funding for food safety.
“My daughter died at the age of 14 after being sickened by E. coli poisoning, and as a result, I know the horrors of foodborne illness all too well,” said Dana Boner of Monroe, IA. “This funding increase is a step in the right direction, and I appreciate Rep. Latham’s continued commitment to food safety.”
In a release, Pew noted that although the Senate version of the bill has included increased food safety funding for the past three years, this increase in the House bill marks the first time in three years the House Appropriations Committee has initiated significant new dollars for FDA food safety.
The House bill is expected to see floor action as early as next week. The Senate version of the appropriations bill is scheduled for committee markup next week.
While the reaction from trading partners was immediate with a significant impact on markets and Monsanto opponents did not miss an opportunity to crow, USDA says genetically modified wheat plants found in Oregon was an isolated event.
“As of today, USDA has neither found nor been informed of anything that would indicate that this incident amounts to more than a single isolated incident in a single field on a single farm,” the agency said in a statement issued Friday. “All information collected so far shows no indication of the presence of GE wheat in commerce. Investigators are conducting a thorough review.”
“On May 29, USDA announced that a small number of volunteer wheat plants in an Oregon field had tested positive for genetically engineered (GE) glyphosate-resistant wheat. Extensive testing confirmed the wheat as a variety – MON71800 – developed by Monsanto,” USDA said.
“The detection of this wheat variety does not pose a public health or food safety concern. Monsanto worked with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004 to complete a voluntary food and feed safety consultation,” It added. “ Completion of the FDA consultation process means this variety is as safe as non-GE wheat currently on the market.”
In the statement, USDA acknowledged its investigation began on May 3, many days before the incident was made public. That was the day when an Oregon State University scientist notified USDA officials that plant samples they had tested positive for a protein that made them resistant to glyphosate.
USDA’s investigators have interviewed the person that harvested the wheat from this field as well as the seed supplier who sold the producer wheat seed; obtained samples of the wheat seed sold to the producer and other growers; and obtained samples of the producer’s wheat harvests, including a sample of the producer’s 2012 harvest.
It says all of these samples of seed and grain tested negative for the presence of GE material. Investigators are continuing to conduct interviews with approximately 200 area growers.
USDA’s statement on the incident concluded with information on steps it has taken to reassure the wheat market.
“On June 13, 2013, USDA validated an event-specific PCR (DNA-based) method for detecting MON71800 (provided by Monsanto to USDA on May 23, 2013),” it said. “ The USDA validation process included a specificity study and a sensitivity study. USDA determined that the method can reliably detect MON71800 when it is present at a frequency of 1 in 200 kernels. Additionally, USDA has provided this validated DNA test method to detect this specific GE variety to our trading partners that have requested it.”
“Major markets, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, have postponed imports of U.S. white wheat as they continue to study information from U.S. officials to determine what, if any, future action may be required. USDA officials will continue to provide information as quickly as possible as the investigation continues – with a top priority on giving our trading partners the tools they need to ensure science-based trade decisions.”
Townsend Farms, the organic berry and pomegranate-mix manufacturer whose products were recalled due to hepatitis A contamination earlier this month, is facing 2 additional lawsuits from people who allege they fell ill with hepatitis A infections after consuming the company’s berry and pomegranate seed mix.
According to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona, Claudine Rad ate the Townsend Farms organic berry mix multiple times during April and May. She initially fell ill with flu-like symptoms, fatigue and nausea and later became jaundiced—a typical sign of hepatitis A infection.
After learning that the Townsend Farms product was being recalled, Rad sought medical care for what she suspected to be a hepatitis A infection, and learned in early June that she had tested positive for hepatitis A.
Rad’s attorneys allege that she lost over 3 weeks of work-time due to her illness and that she has still not fully recovered.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in Yolo County Superior Court in California, Diego Durrell alleges that he ate the Townsend Farms product in April and fell ill with symptoms of hepatitis A infection on May 5.
Durrell, who also tested positive for hepatitis A, was hospitalized from May 15 through May 18, spending 2 nights in the intensive care unit. Despite being discharged from the hospital, his attorneys allege that he continues to receive medical treatment and that he has not fully recovered from his illness.
The public health investigation into the hepatitis A outbreak led to the determination that pomegranate seeds from Turkey were the likely source of hepatitis A in the Townsend Farms product. The CDC stated that the genotype of hepatitis A associated with the outbreak is 1B, a strain rarely seen in the Americas but that circulates in North Africa and the Middle East.
Hepatitis A genotype 1B was associated with outbreaks in Europe and Canada in 2013 and 2012, respectively. In both outbreak-situations, frozen berries or frozen berry blends with pomegranate seeds were implicated as the source of illness.
Both plaintiffs are represented by Marler Clark, the law firm that underwrites Food Safety News. The law firm has filed 3 other individual lawsuits against Townsend Farms on behalf of people who allege they fell ill with hepatitis A infections after eating the berry mix and 7 class action lawsuits on behalf of residents of 7 states who received hepatitis A vaccination or immune globulin injections to prevent illness after they learned they were exposed to the virus.
If administered within 2 weeks of exposure to the virus, Hepatitis A vaccine and immune globulin can either prevent infection or lessen the severity of symptoms.
“It seems to me that Townsend Farms had some warning that it should be examining its suppliers’ food safety practices,” said attorney Bill Marler. “What we think of as healthy food can only be good for us if it is safe.”
When your company’s reputation for all-natural, premium-quality products is 100 years old and the nation’s top chefs comprise your major market, each day’s production has a rather high bar to meet. Mike Satzow, the third-generation owner of North Country Smokehouse, Claremont, N.H., knows not only where that bar is set, but the factors that could hobble his operation’s success.
“We’re not smart enough to compete on price,” he jokes, “so we have to maintain consistently high quality and uncompromising food safety standards.”
Of course, most food processors talk about product quality, but each uses its own set of parameters to define “quality.” In the case of North Country Smokehouse—which produces six types of smoked ham, seven kinds of bacon, and 17 varieties of sausage, as well as beef brisket, a range of smoked turkey, chicken, and duck products, and a line of cheeses—traditional and contemporary New England values provide the foundation for quality.
As the company’s website explains, “From the earliest days of our business, each choice we’ve made has been fueled by what we truly believe is the right thing to do.” So how is that perspective manifested in raw material sourcing and processing? North Country sources all of its pork from a family farm in Montreal, which raises “a specialty breed of pigs with similar genetics to the Duroc, an American domestic breed known for its leanness and flavor,” the website states.
Further, because Satzow believes that well cared-for pigs yield premium-quality meat, North Country participates in the Certified Humane program which validates proper care and handling of livestock and allows North Country to use a “Certified Humane” mark on a number of its products.
When the pork comes in, North Country butchers hand-trim the meat and cure it in locally sourced maple syrup and spices for several days. Meat bound for sausage is blended with all-natural ingredients such as apples, aged cheddar, wine, or herbs and stuffed into natural casings; North Country does not use fillers, monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, liquid smoke, or dyes in any of its meat products.
The finishing touch is applied in the smokehouse, where German-made smokers transform chunks of Applewood and other high-quality hardwood into “an intense, humid smoke” that permeates the meat for up to 10 hours.
North Country’s motto is “food that’s rooted in passion tastes better.” Among the justifications for that assertion, Satzow notes that in February, his company’s Andouille sausage won the North American Meat Association’s (NAMA) 2013 “Hold the Mustard” award at MEATXPO’13, the group’s annual suppliers’ exposition and convention. The award is one heck of a compliment, as it means that a significant percentage of the meat industry professionals attending the Expo’s Gourmet Sausagefest—that is, Satzow’s peers—thought his product was the best of a dozen or so they had tasted that evening.
Befitting their position as one of the gold standards of New England’s finest meat processors, North Country Smokehouse is the house purveyor for the James Beard Institute in New York City. Upscale hotels, restaurants, institutions, and cruise lines are the company’s primary clientele, and the public can purchase North Country products through the company’s e-commerce site.
“We also have a secondary retail presence through specialty shops throughout New England and the greater Northeast,” Satzow added. “We sell almost exclusively under our own brand [rather than private label]. Retailers who offer our product say it creates velocity for their stores.”
A New Value Proposition
While many specialty food purveyors might envy North Country’s stellar reputation and elite clientele, Satzow offers one caveat: “We’re only as good as the last batch of product we’ve delivered.”
He explained that his firm does not advertise, but builds and maintains its customer base through intensive relationship marketing. “We work directly with chefs, and the key to those relationships is that once you gain a chef’s trust, you gain an extremely loyal customer,” Satzow said. “By the same token, however, if we were to lose that trust because of a quality or safety issue, it is likely we would never get it back.”
As particular as he is about the raw materials, ingredients, and processing techniques used in creating North Country products, Satzow has established an aggressive food safety program to protect his legendary brand name. It is noteworthy that the same New England values that have led Satzow to use old-fashioned, higher-cost ingredients and processing methods have also compelled him to pursue leading-edge, money-saving food safety technologies.
An Ounce of Prevention
Having grown up in the meat industry, Mike Satzow knows that cleaning and sanitizing processing equipment and the overall plant environment only partially solves the food safety equation. Thus, in 2011 he and his staff began researching and evaluating antimicrobial treatments designed for direct contact with food products. The search was challenging, because they needed a treatment that was highly effective at killing pathogens but would not alter their products’ flavor or texture.
One treatment that Satzow considered promising was Listex®, a culture of bacteriophages that are effective against Listeria monocytogenes, developed by Micreos Food Safety, Wageningen, The Netherlands. Bacteriophages (or phages for short) are microorganisms that kill only bacteria. Phages are specific to their target bacterial species, and will not affect desirable bacteria in foods (starter cultures, for example), beneficial bacteria in the human gastrointestinal tract, or other useful, non-pathogenic bacteria in the environment. North Country reviewed the supplier’s efficacy data and did some in-plant testing of its own. Satzow also spoke with colleagues at a Canadian food company that was using Listex and had a good experience with it. Listex was approved by Health Canada before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) green-lighted it for use in U.S. in May, 2011.
Per the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 172.785) and Directive 7120.1 from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), “Safe and Suitable Ingredients used in the Production of Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products,” Listex may be applied to the surface of ready-to-eat (RTE) meat and poultry products “to achieve a level of 1 x 107 to 1 x 109 plaque forming units (pfu) per gram of product.” In addition, Listex is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe), natural, and organic, so it is listed by the Organic Material Review Institute for use in processing of natural and organic foods.
“When the USDA approved Listex as a processing aid, we jumped on it,” Satzow remarks. “We felt it was an innovative treatment, and we liked the fact that it is applied topically. It allowed us to improve our food safety standards without compromising key attributes of our product, such as flavor and texture.”
Dirk de Meester, Micreos’ business development director, explains that phages do not alter the organoleptic properties of the finished product such as taste, texture and color. Some microbial treatments may be effective against Listeria but usually have undesirable effects on the meat product.
Although Listex is an inexpensive processing aid, cost was the least of Satzow’s concerns. “We don’t put a price on food safety,” he said. “We set the highest bar possible for the safety and quality of our products.”
Listeria is considered one of the most dangerous food safety threats, due to its high mortality rate—more than 20 percent overall and higher still among the elderly—and its risk to pregnant women, de Meester explained. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of listeriosis cases occur during pregnancy, and newborn babies suffer the most serious effects of infection. Given that any ready-to-eat food product is susceptible to Listeria, the human and financial costs of a potential listeriosis outbreak are unacceptable, especially to a small company such as North Country.
Although Listex does not have to appear on product labels because it is classified as a processing aid, Satzow says he does make an effort to educate his customers regarding his company’s no-holds-barred approach to food safety. “Our industry is not known for its transparency, and too many [members of the public] don’t believe the meat industry is doing everything it can to provide the safest possible product,” he said. “We in the industry are partially responsible for that because we don’t explain the complex issues behind ensuring the safety of our products and we don’t educate the consumer as to why we use the chemical or biological interventions that we use.”
On the other hand, Satzow admits that his company has experienced pushback from a few customers, “because we did explain that we are using phages and the idea of using them to kill bacteria seemed like science fiction to them.” In fact, he notes, using phages is simply good science. Phages are time-honored products that go back to the days before penicillin was discovered. He says, “Now we use the language, ‘a natural product that changes the DNA of Listeria’.”
De Meester further explains that while the history of using phages is well documented, today the field is being revolutionized. “With today’s technology we can actually look on the molecular level and see how phages work against bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes.”
The Food Safety News series on processing aids is sponsored by Micreos.
Heidi Parsons is a writer, editor, and content manager for print and online media. During her 15+ years in business-to-business publishing, she has covered food processing, institutional foodservice, packaging, pharmaceuticals, and police canine handling.
The crunch of a good organic apple. The taste of a sun-warmed organic tomato. The welcome chunk of an organic potato in a potato salad. The distinctive flavor of an organic hamburger.
Without a doubt, fresh organic foods are a popular mainstay in grocery stores and at farmers markets across the nation. But what about processed organic foods such as applesauce or juice, tomato sauce, frozen meals, potato chips and sausages? Not to mention organic ice creams and desserts? Or jelly beans and cookies and even vodka? How are they processed and what “processing aids” are used to make them? Which ones are allowed and which ones are prohibited?
Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought has gone into this. According to an Organic Trade Association backgrounder, the National Organic Standards Board in 1995 completed a “massive review” of materials used by organic producers. The board’s recommendations served as the foundation for what is referred to as the “National List.”
In 2003, shortly after the USDA’s National Organic Program was officially implemented in 2002, the National List was updated and continues to be updated.
The importance of the list was highlighted back in 2001 in comments made by Keith Jones, then program manager of the USDA’s National Organic Program, during a videoconference sponsored by the Institute of Food Technologists.
“We know that there are a lot of common processing aids that are used across the country that are not on the National List,” he said. “And if it’s not on the National List, come Oct. 21, 2002, you cannot use that particular ingredient or processing aid and label a product as organic.”
Although the emphasis was, and continues to be, on organics, food safety does come into the picture. For example, some of the processing aids are cleaning agents used to wash packaging equipment. As investigations of food poisoning outbreaks have often revealed, potentially deadly pathogens can harbor in processing equipment.
For an item to be included on the list (there are actually six parts to the list, the last several of which deal with processing aids), it must be approved by the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA. There are hundreds of items ranging from agar (vegetarian gelatin substitute produced from a variety of seaweed vegetation) to yeast on those lists. Anything not on the lists cannot be used.
In line with the goals of the National Organic Program, synthetic processing aids should be kept out of organic foods whenever possible. But that’s not always possible, because some of the processing aids needed to make some processed foods just aren’t available in organic or natural forms. Only in those cases, can synthetic alternatives be approved.
But even then, certain criteria must be met. For example, the nutritional quality of the food must be maintained when the synthetic substance is used, and it must be listed as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration, which means it contains no heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA. Its use must also be compatible with the goals of organic handling.
Advocates for organics say that the importance given to processing aids is yet another example of the emphasis organics puts on how food is produced — from the seed to how the food is processed. It’s what consumers expect, they say.
“It’s important for people to know just how well-regulated organics is,” Charlotte Vallaeys, director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute, told Food Safety News.com. “It’s not just about ingredients but also about processing aids.”
Organic foods are produced using farming methods that don’t use inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition, organic foods cannot be processed with irradiation or industrial solvents.
Synthetic and nonorganic processing aids that are OK
The processing aids on the National List are tied to labeling. Processed products can be labeled as “100 percent organic” as long as the processing aids used to make them are also organic. For a product to be labeled as “organic,” any synthetics in the product may not account for more than 5 percent of the total product, by weight.
A common example of allowable processing aids is the use of organic acid(s) such as lactic, acetic, or citric used as part of a livestock carcass wash that is applied before the carcass is chilled. Corn starch and baking soda are some other examples.
Some examples of synthetics allowed in processing aids for organic products are familiar items to many people, among them ascorbic acid, a synthetic form of vitamin C, which is used to keep fruits from turning brown when they come into contact with the air. Other familiar examples are carbon dioxide (to carbonate beverages) and Xanthan gum, a thickener.
Other allowable synthetics are not so familiar. For example, acidified sodium chlorite can be used as a secondary direct antimicrobial food treatment and indirect food-contact surface sanitizer. And ferrous sulfate can be used for iron enrichment or fortification of foods when required by regulation or recommended by an independent organization.
Other allowable synthetics are ethylene for post harvest ripening of tropical fruit and degreening of citrus; phosphoric acid for cleaning food-contact surfaces and equipment only; and sulfur dioxide for use only in wine labeled “made with organic grapes,” provided that the total sulfite concentration doesn’t exceed 100 ppm.
The “nonsynthetics” allowed in the category of “nonorganic substances” include citric acid; rennet (often used for cheese-making); dairy cultures; diatomaceous earth (as a food filtering aid only); tartaric acid made from grape wine; and yeast.
Examples of allowable “nonorganically produced agricultural products” are cornstarch (native); kelp for use only as a thickener and dietary supplement; high-methoxypectin (to gel jams and jellies); and water-extracted gums (for thickeners and stabilizers) such as arabic, guar, locust bean and carob bean.
Examples of bacteriophages (natural viruses that can kill foodborne pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella among others) that are allowed to be used as processing aids are Listex P100 and SalmoFresh.
Listex can be used to eradicate Listeria in ready-to-eat meats, and SalmoFresh can be used to kill Salmonella on meat and poultry to be ground up for patties or other food items. Both of these foodborne pathogens can cause serious illnesses and even death.
Listex and SalmoFresh are GRAS (generally regarded as safe) and OMRI-listed, which means they are approved for organic use in the United States. Because the USDA classifies them as processing aids, they don’t have to appear on the label.
As for ingredients such as sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate and polysorbate 80, often seen on labels on non-organic processed foods, they aren’t on the National List and therefore can’t be used in organic processed foods. That’s true for any processing aid not found on the list.
For a processing aid to get on the list, someone or some company must petition for it to be included and it must go through a comprehensive analysis to ensure that it fits in with the goals of organics. It generally takes one to two years to go through the process.
As for food handling, high pressure processing (HPP), which kills pathogens and protects food quality, and UV light (not irradiation), which can extend the shelf life and quality of some produce, both may be used in organics.
One of the ‘no-nos’ Hexane: “the dirty little secret”
A byproduct of gas refining, hexane is a volatile solvent used with the FDA’s approval to extract oil from soybeans, nuts and olives.
Because it’s inexpensive and so effective, hexane is used as a processing aid in many (but not all) veggie burgers and other meat substitutes, health bars, and even some baby formula.
“The dirty little secret of the natural soy foods industry is the widespread use of hexane in processing,” says a Cornucopia report.
Not surprisingly, hexane, which is classified by the Centers for Disease Control as a neurotoxin and by the Environmental Protection Agency as an air pollutant, is not on the National List of allowable processing aids.
Out in the marketplace, consumers looking for meat substitutes, with the thought that eating less meat is good for the planet, often buy “garden burgers” whose soybeans have been processed with hexane, without knowing it.
“You’ll never see a label on a garden burger that says “soybeans in this product were immersed in hexane,” said Vallaeys, Cornucopia’s director of Farm and Food Policy.
She said that if a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein “you can be pretty sure it was made with soy beans that were processed with hexane — dumped into huge vats of hexane.”
“But when buying foods labeled ‘100 percent organic,’ you can be sure they weren’t put into hexane,” she said.
The Soyfoods Association of North America says that hexane is used only in the initial steps of soy processing and that almost all of it is eliminated by the time the soy ingredients are used in soy products. But independent testing commissioned by Cornucopia found hexane residues in soy oil, soy grits and soy meal, according to its report on this.
So what does this mean for the consumer? It’s hard to say because the FDA doesn’t monitor hexane in foods, and it doesn’t require companies to test for it.
“There are so many things we don’t know about this,” said Vallaeys. “But we do know that it’s a really dangerous substance.”
Seth Tibbott, founder and CEO of Tofurky, a company that makes a soy-based turkey-substitute roast as well as other meatless products such as turkey deli slices and sausages, said his company avoids using hexane because it doesn’t belong in natural foods.
“How much of a percentage of gasoline do you need in your food?” he said.
He sees the use of hexane as “a sleeping giant” in the industry.
When people learn about it, they’re horrified,” he said. “But most consumers are more concerned about GMOs and sodium in their food.”
His company has always used organic soybeans and traditional lower-tech ways to process them.
Even so, he said that even though “it’s indisputable” that traces of hexane can be found in some foods, the food-safety aspects of this are still to be determined.
“I don’t think there have been any long-term studies on this, and I can’t say I’ve read any peer-reviewed literature on it, but we prefer to play it safe,” he said.
The Cornucopia Institute provides a rundown of soy-based veggie burgers and health bars that are made without using hexane as a processing aid and those that are.
A cleaner label?
Can there be a “cleaner label” than organics? Is it the best label going for consumers looking for foods with human health and the health of the environment in mind.
Organic advocates say that a 100 percent organic label is hard to beat. They point out that organics is about transparency—letting the consumers know what’s in the food they’re eating and how it was produced and processed. In addition, for a food to be certified as “organic,” it needs to go through a third-party certification. Not only that, the certifier has to be certified by the USDA. It would be hard to beat that combination of assurances, they say.
“A lot about organics is about following the “precautionary principle,” said Cornucopia’s Vallaeys, citing hydrogenated oils, which studies have shown lead to the gathering of trans fats in the body, as a good example of that. “It was never allowed in organics.”